Tomorrow my team plays ‘La STIB’, La Société des Transports intercommunaux de Bruxelles, the public transport service, whose first football XI is composed of grizzled Moroccan tram drivers evincing a compelling blend of truculence, modest technical ability and comedy play-acting.
We have had several memorable encounters with la STIB over the years, like when they forced us to play on their second home pitch, a surface so scuffed and holey that after two minutes of play our captain gathered the ball in his hands and announced that conditions were too hazardous to continue, invoking article something or other of regulation something or other. We duly flounced back to the changing rooms sporting neither bead of sweat nor smear of mud.
No, my team, which boasts its own hard core of flamboyant Moroccans, doesn’t get on with la STIB.
In our most controversial set-to to date, tensions had already been running high when suddenly, amid the niggles, theatrical face-offs, flailing elbows and general shithousery, midway through the second half, our athletic and otherwise placid inside right (not of Moroccan descent) lost his shit, planting a firm right hand jab in the face of his latest assailant. As is customary in such circumstances, the other players clustered around the couple, some of them remonstrating, others pretending to mollify and restrain. Threats were bandied to and fro – one issuing from a representative of la STIB who promised the starkest of reckonings ‘après le match’.
“Après le match?” retorted our resident pugilist, his ire once more raised. “Mais chaque fois tu dis après le match’. And with that he landed his right fist on a second face belonging to la STIB.
Neither of these blows received answer in kind, because in my limited experience Moroccan men, though often adept at threatening violence, are generally peace-loving servants of God. Meanwhile, almost forgotten amidst this isolated melée in the Brussels suburb of Evere, stood the referee, waiting for the storm to settle. He said nothing, brandished no cards and, when the squall subsided, actually awarded a free kick to my team.
The rest of the game passed without incident; likewise après le match.
In another game, now as a substitute I sat on the bench, watching the action next to our (Moroccan, injured) captain. La STIB had a promising free kick, just outside our penalty area. Their coach prowled hopefully along the touchline, barking, coaxing and cajoling. The ensuing effort scudded harmlessly wide of our goal. ‘Bien essayé! Bien essayé!’ he shouted encouragingly, before turning away and exclaiming irascibly to himself in Arabic how he really felt .
Our captain chuckled as he translated for me this intensely private exclamation: ‘C’est quoi cette merde!’